Are humans just acting from trauma?

There’s a high school in Walla Walla Washington that has discovered a new disciplinary approach, and has seen its numbers of suspensions drop by 85%. (See this link for the whole story.) The approach is revolutionary, radical even. Here’s how it goes: A student rages at a teacher, yelling obscenities. Then the teacher responds:

“Wow. Are you OK? This doesn’t sound like you. What’s going on?” He gets even more specific: “You really looked stressed. On a scale of 1-10, where are you with your anger?”

From there, the teacher continues to engage the student in noticing his or her own reactivity and then expressing what is really going on with the student, be it difficulties at home or an earlier triggering interaction. In other words, in the face of Reactive Brain, the teacher actually notices the student’s level of upset and disorganization, and supports the student to shift back to Creative brain.

As I read about this new approach, I was incredulous. What I couldn’t believe was that such a simple intervention took us so long to discover. Worse yet, I was unnerved by my own assumption that there really are “bad” kids, kids who will never fit in, who deserve suspension and expulsion. I remembered my own work with “emotionally disturbed” adolescents, and how I (in retrospect) took on the paradigm that the kids we served were somehow different from the other acting out kids, that they clearly had emotional difficulties that would change with the right help. Those other kids, though, they would never change.

The revolutionary approach that Lincoln High School has embraced and had huge success with is only radical in its view of all students as potentially behaving from the effects of trauma and difficulty. It doesn’t separate out some kids from others; it suggests that every student is simply reacting from his or her life circumstances. I teach this every day, that our reactivity is innate and normal, and something to have great compassion about. To see a school adopt this view, that adults (and probably other students) could simply hold space for the expression and ultimately healing of trauma catalyzed a whole new possibility for me. What if all human expression of hostility and aggression were simply the natural response to threat? What if I had the wherewithal to be that calming influence, to hold the space for humans around me to shift out of Reactive Brain, no matter what? What if I would stop categorizing humans, even unconsciously, into good/bad, salvageable and not, and stepped into the chaotic energy of reactivity with breath, groundedness, and love?

There is an emerging point of view that most mental illness is actually based in trauma. The ground-breaking direction of Lincoln High School suggests that we can take this perspective even further: that most of human conflict arises from that same origin, from overwhelming emotional experiences that lodge in the body, waiting to be triggered into acting out. I look forward to seeing what other brand-new interventions we devise that will revert us to the most basic of states, that of compassion for our own humanness.

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